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Greater Hartford welcomes new Israeli “ambassador”

By Cindy Mindell

Raz Newman

Raz Newman

WEST HARTFORD – If Mae West was right, “too much of a good thing can be wonderful.”  In the case of the Jewish community, the “good thing” is love and support for Israel, nurtured by Israelis who work to strengthen these critical Israel-diaspora ties by fostering more and more of the good thing.

Last month, the Mandell JCC of Greater Hartford added another alchemist to the community, in the form of Young Shaliach Raz Newman (“shaliach” is Hebrew for “emissary”).

Newman comes to the community as the result of a year-long exploration headed by the Mandell JCC’s newly created Israel Task Force, co-chaired by Miki Siegel and Kathy Fishman and comprised of lay leaders and professionals, to discuss the role of Israel at the JCC. Through a process overseen by the JCC Association (JCCA), the task force and JCC leadership completed an Israel Program Audit, attended a JCCA conference together with Mandell board members, and conducted a year-long exploration of the importance of Israel at the JCC.

“Additionally, the new JCC Association’s Vision and Statement of Principles for the 21st Century states, ‘Israel is an eternal birthright of the Jewish people, linking us to our past, and to Jews around the world today,’ and we wanted Israel to be at the forefront of our JCC,” says Elana MacGilpin, Mandell JCC director of community engagement. “While our current programming was educating those already in support of Israel, we wanted to accomplish this on a wider level. The JCC Association Benchmarking [process] also showed us that JCCs have a unique opportunity to show people another side of Israel that they do not see on the news and we wanted to provide this on a more wide-spread level.”

The greater Hartford Jewish community has long hosted Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) shlichim of various sorts, all tasked with strengthening the Israel-diaspora relationship. A traditional community shaliach – aged 35 to 40, usually married and with a family – served at the JCC from the ‘70s up until just over a decade ago. The Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford has also sponsored a pair of Israeli Young Emissaries nearly every year since 2000. The program, part of JAFI’s Partnership2Gether initiative, selects recent Israeli high-school graduates for a year-long cultural “ambassadorship” in Jewish communities throughout the U.S. Greater Hartford is among 12 Jewish Federations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island that participate in the program as the Southern New England Consortium, paired with sister region Afula-Gilboa in northern Israel.

With the Young Emissaries solely responsible for bringing Israel-related content to the greater Hartford Jewish community, leaders and community-members began to express a need for more Israel awareness and programming, MacGilpin says. Thanks to funding from the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford and the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Hartford, the Mandell JCC was able to bring Raz Newman to the community through JAFI’s Young Shaliach program.

Unlike an Israeli Young Emissary, a Young Shaliach is a single young adult aged 22 to 30 who has completed his or her Israeli military service. The two programs share a single mission: to connect diaspora Jews to Israel. Newman is one of 35 Israelis serving as Young Shlichim at North American JCCs, including Stamford and Eastern Fairfield County.

While the Young Emissaries work to bring Israel to preschool- and school-age children, Newman’s bailiwick includes teens, young adults, and the local Israeli community, with the goal to strengthen the JCC’s connection to Israel and Connecticut’s partner region, Afula-Gilboa, as well as to enhance the JCC’s Israel ambiance and experience. “We did not want to overlap services but wanted to really expand the reach of these talented and dedicated young Israelis so that a wider range of people in our community make personal connections with them and with Israel,” MacGilpin says.

Both shaliach positions will continue to exist and co-exist: Newman and the Young Emissaries will collaborate on community-wide programs and events like Yom Rabin, a memorial ceremony to mark the 18th anniversary of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination (Nov. 3); a new monthly “Hands on Israel” family program; and a Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Memorial Day and Independence Day) program in the spring.

In addition, Newman is partnering with several community institutions, teaching a class on modern Israel at Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, co-coordinating the Shulchan Ivrit (Hebrew Conversation Table) group at Moishe House West Hartford, participating in a film discussion at The Wadsworth Atheneum, speaking at area synagogues, and working with local Hillel houses to recruit students for Birthright-Israel trips. He is also working on programming ideas for the Israeli teens who visit West Hartford every year for the Trinity College Fire-Fighting Home Robot Contest.

Originally from Rishon LeTzion, a city near Tel Aviv, Newman was a member and counselor in the HaMahanot-HaOlim youth movement and served in the Israel Defense Forces’ Oketz elite combat unit, where he was tapped for the JAFI leadership division. Last summer, he worked as the film specialist at Camp Ramah Darom in Atlanta. (In fact, the 22-year-old attributes his excellent spoken English to copious exposure to the language through films and songs.)

“Working with Americans, I was fascinated with how Jews abroad practice Judaism,” Newman says. “It was different than what I did, as a Jew who doesn’t consider himself religious.”

Newman traveled for six months before returning to Israel, where he was offered a spot in the Young Shaliach program. He trained for five months and interviewed in various North American Jewish communities, including Miami, New York, Los Angeles, and Vancouver, before accepting the three-year position in Greater Hartford.

“Greater Hartford is a diverse Jewish community,” Newman says. “There are people who go to Israel and there are Israeli families, and then we have the other side – people who know they’re Jewish and know about Israel but have never been. My main goal will be to let people know more about Israel and help them feel more connected to Israel. I won’t be pushing aliyah – we understand that we need to have Jews abroad – but if someone wants to make aliyah or serve in the IDF, I’m the address, I’m involved in the process.”

Newman has already made many connections in the community and hosted a festive communal Israeli dinner in the JCC’s sukkah last month.  He is also well-received by the local population of fellow young Jewish professionals, MacGilpin says, a group that the organized Jewish community often finds difficult to reach and engage, but that is now connected to the JCC and Israel simultaneously.

“The JCC has made a true shidduch with Raz and the Young Shaliach program and we are excited about the infusion of Israel-content programming and passion that he is bringing to our community,” says MacGilpin.

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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